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From Matthews Arena to the Stanley Cup Final

Dallas Stars defenseman Jamie Oleksiak (2) checks Tampa Bay Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov (86) during third-period NHL Stanley Cup finals hockey action in Edmonton, Alberta, Saturday, Sept. 19, 2020. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press via AP)

Jamie Oleksiak, a hockey star at Northeastern a decade ago, has graduated on to the NHL Stanley Cup Final. Oleksiak, a 6-foot-7-inch defenseman, scored the winning goal for the Dallas Stars in Game 1. The best-of-seven series is 1-1 heading into Game 3 Wednesday against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Oleksiak had finished his freshman year at Northeastern when he became the No. 14 pick overall by the Stars in the 2011 draft, making him the highest NHL pick in the history of the Huskies program. He left Northeastern to spend a year with the Saginaw Spirit in the Ontario Hockey League.

Jim Madigan is the the head coach of Northeastern’s men’s ice hockey team. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Jim Madigan, the current men’s hockey coach, was hired by Northeastern shortly after Oleksiak’s departure. But he knew the player very well. Oleksiak’s girlfriend at the time was rooming at Northeastern with Madigan’s daughter, Kate. And Madigan was working as a scout with the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins during his time as Northeastern’s associate dean and director of development at what is now the D’Amore-McKim School of Business.

“I probably watched him 15 times during the season, a lot of them right here at Matthews Arena,” says Madigan, who also interviewed Oleksiak on behalf of the Penguins before the draft. “And then I interviewed him in my office on the third floor of Dodge Hall when I was in the associate dean’s position.”

Madigan saw the potential in Oleksiak, who has filled out to 255 pounds in the NHL.

“Back then, he was big—and you knew he was going to be a mountain of a man as he continued to develop and get older,” Madigan says. “He was a good young man, quiet, and just kind of taking everything in because it was his draft year and he had first-round capabilities. So you knew there was a lot of upside with him.”

Oleksiak’s stock rose quickly during his season at Northeastern. His 13 points (including four goals) ranked second among Huskies’ defensemen in 2010-11, and he led the team with a plus-13 rating. His younger sister, Hayley Oleksiak, would follow him to Northeastern as a rower for the Huskies.

“Everyone at Northeastern has really helped me out, whether it’s been the coaching staff or guys on the team,” Jamie Oleksiak said in 2011. “Northeastern’s been tremendously influential in my development, and I owe a lot to that program.”

Oleksiak has generated 5 goals and 8 points overall in 23 playoff games this season. The Stars have outscored opponents by seven goals while Oleksiak has been on the ice during the postseason; he leads the team in that important plus-minus category.

“Now you’re seeing a tremendous amount of confidence with the puck,” Stars coach Rick Bowness said of Oleksiak. “He’s tremendously poised with it, not afraid to take gambles offensively and get up ice, which we’ve encouraged. It’s great for Jamie. This is the best hockey that we’ve seen him play.”

Oleksiak’s success is all the more satisfying in light of the difficulties he endured early in his pro career. Parts of his first four seasons were spent in the minor leagues; in 2017 he was traded to the Penguins, who sent him back to Dallas two years later.

Oleksiak played only four games in the playoffs last season for the Stars before suffering a knee injury.

It goes without saying that he was under pressure to fulfill high expectations coming from such an athletic family. Another sister, Penny Oleksiak, won a gold, a silver, and two bronze medals as a swimmer for Canada in the 2016 Olympic Games in Brazil.

“I think Dallas probably became a little impatient with his development,” Madigan says. “I think they were looking for more of a physical element. But he didn’t want to be just known as a fighter.”

Oleksiak has learned to blend his size with a rare array of skills. His length enables him to control a large area defensively, and he has learned to branch out and attack at the other end as opportunities arise. At age 27, his best is yet to come.

“Like everything in pro sports, we want it now, right?” Madigan says. “This is a prime example of having to have patience with players, and not trying to rush them, and not trying to have them be something they’re not.”

The Stanley Cup Final is being played in a bubble environment in Edmonton, Alberta. Oleksiak, who grew up in Toronto, has been joined by his parents there. 

“If you’re an athlete, this is what you live for,” Madigan says. “I’m sure he’s just over the moon and enjoying the experience. There’s no better time to be playing well than in the Stanley Cup Final.”

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